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Flagship Institutions Serve Whiter, Wealthier Student Body, Study Says

Flagship Institutions Serve Whiter, Wealthier Student Body, Study Says

The leading public flagship universities are disproportionately serving a Whiter and wealthier student body than in the past, according to a report by the Education Trust. 

The report, “Engines of Inequality: Diminishing Equity in the Nation’s Premier Public Universities,” shows how students in entering and graduating classes at institutions such as Pennsylvania State University or the University of South Carolina look less and less like the state populations those universities were created to serve.

Researchers found financial aid resources are increasingly being allocated away from low-income students, mostly to compete for high-income students who would enroll in college regardless of the amount of aid they receive.

“At a time when more and more low-income and minority students are preparing for college, it is disturbing that many of our most prestigious colleges and universities are turning away from them,” says Kati Haycock, director of the Education Trust and a co-author of the report.

According to the report, between 1995 and 2003, flagship and other public research universities decreased grant aid by 13 percent for students from families with an annual income of $20,000 or less. Meanwhile, aid to students whose families make more than $100,000 a year skyrocketed 406 percent. College presidents argue that graduates of low-quality urban public high schools often lack the academic background to justify awarding them significant financial aid packages, the report adds.

“Given their special role in developing their states’ future business, academic and political leadership, leaders of flagship universities should feel a special obligation to provide opportunities for talented state residents of all races and economic groups,” says Danette Gerald, the report’s co-author. “But over time, that obligation has been replaced by the relentless pursuit of increased selectivity and ever-higher rankings.”

The study also includes a report card that grades each university’s commitment to access for low-income and minority students. The University of Georgia, for example, received an “F” for minority access. Though Black, Hispanic and American Indian students make up
more than 35 percent of Georgia’s high school graduates, they represented less than 7 percent of UGA’s entering 2004 freshmen class.

The report recommends that flagship institutions examine graduation rate gaps among different student demographics. It also suggests reallocating funds so the bulk of tuition assistance goes to students who wouldn’t be able to afford college without it.

“The flagships occupy a special place in cultivating the next generation of leaders in their states. With their special status comes a special responsibility to combine excellence with equity,” Haycock says. “The flagships need to reaffirm their historic commitment to opportunity and set a new course.”

— By Shilpa Banerji

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